Liberation Journalism  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2008

Liberation Journalism   

A veteran editor says farewell to the world of dailies and finds happiness running a weekly in the home of baseball’s Hall of Fame.

By Jim Kevlin
     

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   » How It Began

This was different.

There were 600 newspaper people at the New York Press Association conference in Saratoga Springs in April 2006, ages 18 to 80, all races, men, women, straight, gay — whatever variation of newsperson you might imagine. English, Creole, Spanish, Hindi and more were heard in the halls.

The energy could have lifted the roof off the old Gideon Putnam Hotel.

That was the first time I heard it: Weekly newspapers are the only growing niche in print journalism.

After a decade and a half at downbeat daily newspaper conferences, with fellow middle-aged white guys bemoaning ever-declining staff and predicting the end of journalism as we once knew it, this was heady stuff.

That Friday night at the gathering of weekly editors and owners there was a gala in the Hall of Springs. The band was actually good. And everybody danced. Play money was changing hands at the roulette and poker tables in a side room. The open bar stayed open — I'm told, having doddered off at midnight — until the last reveler left.

Things are going to turn out all right, I thought to myself as I hurried from presentation to presentation the following day, making sure to get a copy of all the handouts.

I had gone to the NYPA conference because it was starting to look like I would be buying the Freeman's Journal, a challenged but enduring two-centuries-old weekly in Cooperstown founded by Judge William Cooper, James Fenimore Cooper's dad. This is its bicentennial year.

Living in Norwich, Connecticut, where I had previously been the editor of Gannett's Norwich Bulletin, I had spent the past year exploring the non-daily business. It was a year of discovery.

Tom Ward, a refugee from chain dailies in Woonsocket and West Warwick, Rhode Island, told me how he started the free-circulation Valley Breeze with two colleagues in his living room in Cumberland, a growing suburb between the two aging mill towns. That was 10 years ago; in 2006, he had just moved to modern offices and was putting out an ad-heavy, 68-page-plus tab.

I spent a morning with Paul Bass, who after 25 years in print founded the online, nonprofit New Haven Independent (newhavenindependent.org) to cover the hometown news he perceived newspapers were ignoring. Using NPR as his model, he obtained grants from various foundations — to cover health-care issues, for instance (see "Nonprofit News," February/March) — and relies on readers' contributions to make up the difference.

Tim Ryan, president and publisher of the Westerly Sun in Rhode Island, instructed me in the benefits of "localness" beyond what a daily can provide. He had spun off four free-circulation broadsheets to attract very local advertisers.

There was no shortage of advice: from Ron and Charlotte Bartizek, who had owned the Dallas Post in Pennsylvania; from Tony Jones and Vicki Simons, who grew the tiny Roe Jan Independent into the countywide Hillsdale Independent in New York; from Gary and Helen Sosniecki at the Vandalia Leader in Missouri.

In short, it didn't take long to figure out that many brainy, ambitious, independent people had already done what I was determined to do. Bob Estabrook, former Washington Post editorial page editor, then the paper's chief foreign correspondent, clinched it for me: His three-decade association with the Lakeville Journal in Connecticut — beginning when he was about my age, 54 — were the most satisfying years of his life, he said.

Along the way it had dawned on me: 90 percent of the businesses on any Main Street — pizza joints, dry cleaners, gift shops — have simply been priced out of advertising in the dailies.

And not because of the cost of putting out a newspaper; no, those hefty if shrinking profit margins are needed, not just for operating expenses, but to pay off massive debt and keep up the stock price.

Middling-sized chain dailies are looking to average $15 to $20 an inch for advertising; the open rate is often twice that. Working through the numbers, it looked to me like a weekly could survive, even flourish, at $7, $8 or $9 an inch. Bingo.

My wife, M.J., and I were looking into buying a weekly in New Hampshire, but it was pulled off the market. Two months later, the phone rang. "I have a little property in upstate New York you might be interested in," said John Szefc, the newspaper broker.

I had driven through Cooperstown while in college, picked up a copy of the local paper, the Freeman's Journal, and thought to myself, neat name. M.J. had taught at Cornell and loved upstate. Our younger boy, Joe, then 12, was a huge baseball fan. John is in law school, but it hasn't been hard to tempt him and his pals to visit.

It was a natural.

The newspaper's owners, cousins Michael Moffat and Lin Vincent, had rescued the paper when, challenged by a weekly product launched by the nearby daily, it had gone into bankruptcy in 1996.

As Michael's restaurant, the Blue Mingo, prospered, he had less and less time to devote to the Freeman's Journal, which was languishing again in a little red 1820s firehouse on Pioneer Street. Across the dirt parking lot was the oldest building in town, the stone store Judge Cooper had erected in 1789 when he moved to the shores of Otsego Lake — his son's Glimmerglass — and began selling land.

The numbers were not good. Our accountant in Connecticut warned against it. "It's a failed business," he said. But it was a charming one. Historic. Everybody in town loved it, we discovered while scouting the territory. In baseball's mecca, where a half-million people visit annually. Museums. An opera house. The Otesaga Hotel. I can do something with this, I figured.

And so we emerged from lawyer Bob Poulson's office on May 30, 2006, new owners of the oldest business in town. Jagged lightning flashed. Thunder rolled. The skies opened and half of Glimmerglass poured down on the semi-ancient streets of our new town. Was someone trying to tell us something?

M.J. had come up with our corporate name, Iron String Press, after Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Trust thyself, every heart vibrates to that iron string," so we were undeterred.

The next morning was a Wednesday, production day. We started putting the paper together at 9 a.m., still pasting up the pages, and toiled throughout the night. At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, the labor of love was done.

I was exhausted, too excited to sleep, but not too tired to conclude that I didn't have too many back-to-back all-nighters in me. We had to computerize quickly.

The economics of 21st century weekly newspapering rapidly came into focus. Only one computer was serviceable at the level we were moving to. For just $7,000, we obtained two workhorse Dells, five PCs and a copier. Every town has techies galore — ours was Mike Hand from Cherry Valley — and he networked us, hanging wire over the firehouse's primitive beams.

Within a matter of days, predawn 55-mile drives to the printer were a thing of the past. With a click and a drag, we could load the newspaper onto our printer's FTP site, then take a leisurely drive up the following morning to pick up that week's masterpiece.

We spent $1,000 on a Canon EOS-20D, (now down to $799). I commandeered M.J.'s Canon PowerShot ($350 then, $280 now) as backup. Our photography challenges were resolved.

More than two decades ago, Conrad Fink, now a University of Georgia journalism professor who happens to summer in Cherry Valley, had done a case study of a Central New York weekly group for his groundbreaking work "Strategic Newspaper Management." The Freeman's Journal was then one of the group's papers. Fink concluded that the future of community newspapers was in groups with central printing plants, taking advantage of economies of scale.

Small is beautiful, though, and PC advances since then allow small to be profitable as well. With minimum investment, we discovered, a small staff — the smaller the better; learn to do as much as you can yourself — can report the news, sell the ads and produce the pages. (The paper has four full-time and four half-time staffers, as well as half a dozen editorial stringers and columnists.) Someone else can handle the headaches and complexities of running an investment-intensive printing plant.

M.J. and I identified cost centers, and pinched them off one by one.

We had a circulation driver — I loved his red, white and blue Mohawk — but when the June 2006 Susquehanna flooding stranded him at home in Schenevus, we discovered we could do without him and save $500 a week. M.J. and I each took a route, and divided the rest up among the staff.

A printing house in Utica was handling subscriptions, another $500 a week. Bill Garber's Interlink of Berrien Springs, Michigan, provided the program that allows us to print our own labels and cut postage to about $200. Mailing the papers from Cooperstown (and Hartwick, and Fly Creek) also got them to subscribers sooner. (Half of the papers are delivered and half are mailed.)

Printing is a competitive business. We were paying $1,200 a week. If we paid by check at the loading dock, we could print for half that at Sun Printing in Norwich, New York, a shorter drive, too.

Those steps alone, a little dead-reckoning arithmetic will tell you, saved tens of thousands.

(A caveat: Watch your expenses. When, after a year, we moved to well-appointed new offices on the other side of town, the new desks, new phones, carpet and wiring resulted in the one major bump in our fiscal road to date.)

I'm telling you this because coming out of the newsroom, much of the work — ad sales, distribution, bookkeeping — was new to me. It was exciting to find that the survival skills developed by the harassed and haggard daily editor — strategizing, adapting, budgeting, schmoozing and occasionally acting on a creative idea or two — were transferable.

Selling ads, I learned when a salesperson left me in the lurch, is a lot like reporting; instead of extracting information, you're looking to extract revenue. You need the same self-confidence, diplomacy and occasional bluster. To set an interviewee or a shopkeeper at ease, you need to establish common ground.

But none of that speaks to the joy of weekly newspapering.

Foremost, this is pure journalism. You can cover what you want the way you think it should be covered. You can free yourself from the corrosive union that's developed between journalism and marketing — two warring animals — in the past quarter-century. To the degree you can tolerate the consequences, you can speak truth to power.

Cooperstown is content-rich — the Baseball Hall of Fame, Glimmerglass Opera, headquarters of nine-county Bassett Healthcare, are all worthy of an independent beat — but virtually every town everywhere is populated with interesting people facing challenging issues. All news, as Tip O'Neill would have said if he had been an editor, is local.

As I write this, I'm looking at the February 8 edition. The lead story is Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) leading the charge to turn around Major League Baseball's decision to cancel the Hall of Fame game, a nearly 70-year tradition. There's a story about Larry's Barber Shop entering its 35th year, headlined "Norman Rockwell Lives."

The Cooperstown Central girls' basketball team has ended an unprecedented perfect season. The Village of Cooperstown issued warnings to 70 homeowners to clear their sidewalks after a recent ice storm or face fines — all but six complied.

Everyone is scouring the parks to find the 2008 Winter Carnival Medallion and win $500, a prize provided by the Freeman's Journal. And Charlie Vascellaro has brought home a grapefruit signed by Sammy Sosa; Charlie had it freeze-dried to preserve it and is asking $3,000 for the odd souvenir.

There have been meatier issues. One is community resistance to windmills — 3,200 are planned upstate; 75 were to be within sight of James Fenimore Cooper's Glimmerglass. Cooperstown Dreams Park, a youth baseball tournament venue that brings 55,000 to the neighborhood each summer, hasn't been a very good neighbor, most recently installing nine septic fields without permits.

And people seem to be reading what we're printing. Circulation is 2,500, up from 1,800 when we bought it. At this level, content makes a difference. Most weeks, we have more than 50 people identified by name in photos, and they have parents, grandparents, spouses, kids, friends, etc. It doesn't take long before we can "touch" all of the 10,000 people in the towns around the lake.

I see mastheads with nine or 10 or a dozen people on an editorial board, and shudder. How that results in coherent opinions mystifies me — usually, it doesn't. Is there any less pleasant task than having to write an editorial you disagree with? That is intellectual heavy lifting, indeed. Been there, done that.

Now, editorial writing is a pleasure. The idea is to digest the facts. Come to a conclusion. And write it in as lively and convincing a way possible. Go figure. An imperfect opinion is better than pabulum — the readers set us straight the following week. (We ran 300 letters in 2007.)

Often, you can put a price tag on an editorial decision. One potentially major advertiser, for instance, wants access to the news columns as well. That was a $2,000 decision to say no.

The jingoists are right: Freedom isn't free. I can put a dollar value on what it's cost me to exercise the First Amendment — but it's been worth every nickel.

And the paper is profitable, we're making a living and in five years we'll have the note paid off.

In January, James O'Shea was ousted as editor of the Los Angeles Times for refusing newsroom budget cuts, the latest of so many there and at newspapers around the country. And that's just one piece of the malaise. There is an alternative, an exciting one, where you can practice, mostly unfettered, whatever type of journalism you believe in.

My first newspaper job back in 1973 was for the Bridgeport Post in Connecticut. A few weeks in, I was sent up to Danbury to fill in for a vacationing reporter. I got a tip that an oil tank at the local distributor — a big advertiser — had leaked fuel into the Still River.

I got the story and, as I was about to file it, the phone rang. It was our crusty — and revered; I revered him as much as anyone — city editor. I was on the regional desk; we'd never spoken before.

"There's no story," he said.

I started to explain what had transpired. He repeated, "There's no story."

Timid lad though I was, I replied, "I've written the story. I'll file it and you decide whether to run it or not." The story never ran and no one ever mentioned it to me again.

That was the first time I considered quitting the business I loved and continue to love today. But I thought to myself, stay in the game. Do what you can in the service of Truth and Democracy, and let the rest slide.

Little did I know that I didn't have to live that way. I wish I had discovered 35 years ago what I know now.

Jim Kevlin (jkevlin@thefreemansjournal.com) has spent 35 years on newspapers in the Northeast, ranging from the weekly Lakeville Journal in Connecticut to the Buffalo News. He was the editor of dailies in Pennsylvania and Connecticut for 15 years before he and wife M.J. purchased the Freeman's Journal in May 2006.

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